The Conservative view of Health and Politics with the occasional Friday humor
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Beer Drinking of Antiquity
As I was reading this article in one of the magazines I subscribe to, I though about my friend over at the New Albanian. Beer drinking is an age old tradition well founded in historical literature as well as biblical sources. It has medicinal properties as well as social networking benefits that have to be respected as long as moderation remains the practice. The article comes from Biblical Archeology in Review.
Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY
It is clear from countless ancient texts and paintings (such as this one of an old man drinking beer through a long straw from Egypt, c. 1350 B.C.E.) that beer was a common—and even celebrated—part of everyday life in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. But what about Israel? Despite its apparent absence from the Bible in most modern translations, author Michael Homan argues that the ancient Israelites also produced and drank beer, much like their Near Eastern neighbors.
Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged, sanctioned and intimately linked with their religion. Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation, and he drank even more on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). People who were sad were advised to drink beer to temporarily erase their troubles (Proverbs 31:6). Yet the Biblical authors also called for moderation. Several passages condemn those who consumed too much beer (Isaiah 5:11, 28:7; Proverbs 20:1, 31:4). The absence of beer defines a melancholy situation, according to Isaiah 24:9.
Beer was a staple in the Israelite diet, just as it was throughout the ancient Near East. Yet a search of most English translations of the Bible will produce few, if any, occurrences of the word “beer.” Ancient Israel’s affinity for beer has largely been ignored. I believe this is for three reasons: (1) confusion about the meaning of the Hebrew word shekhar (שכר), (2) a general snobbery in academia causing scholars to scorn beer drinking while celebrating wine culture, and (3) the unique challenges archaeologists have faced in finding (or identifying) beer remains in the Israelite material record.
In ancient Near Eastern cultures, beer was in many ways a super-food. By producing and drinking beer, one could dramatically multiply the calories in harvested grains while consuming needed vitamins; the alcohol was also effective at killing bacteria found in tainted water supplies. Given the difficulty of producing food in the ancient world, beer gave you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.
Humans have been making beer for at least 5,000 years, and most likely much longer.1 Some anthropologists have argued that it was a thirst for beer, rather than a hunger for bread, that led to the Neolithic Revolution (c. 9500–8000 B.C.E.), during which humans gradually abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of sedentary farming.2 Beer eventually became a defining characteristic of human culture, much like wearing clothes. Thus in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu becomes civilized and enters the world of humans, drinking beer is one of the defining moments:
Enkidu does not know of eating food; of beer [šikaram] to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth. She said to Enkidu, “Eat the food Enkidu, [it is] the luster of life. Drink the beer as is done in this land.” Enkidu ate the food until he was sated; of the beer he drank seven cups. His soul became free and cheerful, his heart rejoiced, his face glowed. He rubbed ... his hairy body. He anointed himself with oil. He became human.3
Nobody disputes the importance of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was the national drink. Beer was used to pay laborers and the fathers of brides.4 It was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, constipation; one ancient Egyptian prescription calls for a beer enema.5 Hammurabi’s Law Code regulates the price and strength of beer.6 Many ancient temples had their own brewers. One text from Mari indicates the possible use of beer to induce a prophetic state.7 There is little doubt that these references are to beer. So there has been much academic attention given to beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Two big reasons for the emphasis on beer (compared to wine) in these cultures are climate and agriculture. Grains such as barley can be easily grown throughout the Fertile Crescent, but grapes are harder to produce and can be grown only in certain regions. Due to the type of soils and weather in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was difficult to grow grapes. They still drank wine, to be sure, but wines in Egypt and Mesopotamia were often imported from areas such as Palestine, Phoenicia and Greece, where grapes grew more easily. Yet even in the wine-producing regions of Canaan, Greece and Rome, the ancient people also produced and drank beer.8
One of the most popular grains for producing beer, barley was plentiful in ancient Israel. It is listed among the seven species of plants with which the Holy Land was blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8). It was so common that it cost half as much as wheat (2 Kings 7:1, 16, 18). Author Michael Homan planted a barley crop at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem to experiment with ancient beer-making techniques.
Barley, one of the more popular grains for making beer in the ancient world, was (and is) the main ingredient. The Hebrew Bible records barley as one of the most abundant and important crops of ancient Israel. It is one of the seven species of plants with which the Promised Land is blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8).9 In fact, it was so common that its price was approximately half that of wheat (2 Kings 7:1, 16, 18; cf. Revelation 6:6).10 There is no doubt that ancient Israel, like its neighbors, planted, harvested and consumed mass quantities of barley.
The process for making beer was different in the ancient world from that used today, and it didn’t include the addition of hops or carbonation. Beer was often produced by creating a bread or cake made from malted barley or wheat. The bread was then placed in water, forming a sweet liquid known as a wort. In a few days, after adding yeast, the carbohydrates would be converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which would cause the liquid to bubble, indicating fermentation. Thus the wait from the time it was produced until the time it was consumed would have been only a few days. Moreover, beer did not keep well, so it was made for immediate consumption.
Like an illustrated cookbook, this painted relief from the Saqqara tomb of a 5th Dynasty Egyptian official named Ti (c. 2480–2350 B.C.E.) lays out the step-by-step process for making beer. The complete wall picture (not shown here) depicts workers collecting, crushing and grinding grain, heating the pottery, pouring the dough into the pottery vessel (shown in the lower panel above) and removing the baked loaves (upper panel), adding the loaves to a concoction of other ingredients and filtering it, and then pouring the liquid into jars and sealing them to ferment before being consumed. Unlike today’s beer, ancient beer did not include hops or carbonation.
The word from the Hebrew Bible that I translate as “beer” is shekhar (שכר). I believe this is the best translation, based on linguistic and archaeological sources.11 I am certainly not the only scholar to adopt this translation. Others include Richard E. Friedman,12 Magen Broshi,13 Robert G. Boling,14 Johann Döller15 and Werner Dommershausen.16 The most frequent translation of shekhar in English Bibles, however, is “strong drink.” The Jewish Publication Society translation uses ten different English terms for this single Hebrew word: “liquor,” “other liquor,” “drink,” “strong drink,” “any strong drink,” “other strong drink,” “other intoxicant,” “any other intoxicant,” “fermented drink” [with footnote “i.e., wine”], and “drunkards [for drinkers ofshekhar].”17
When used as a noun, the word shekhar appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible. In all but one of these (Numbers 28:7), it stands in parallel to “wine.” Thus, it is similar to wine in that it is fermented and is capable of causing drunkenness, but it is also distinct from wine.
It is hardly surprising that “wine” stands parallel to shekhar in the Hebrew Bible; this is the case in many extra-Biblical texts too. For example, in the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation story) the gods drink “wine” and “beer” in the same sitting.18 In a neo-Assyrian winery at Calah, 11 tablets were found that documented the distribution of “wine” and “beer.”19 At Ashkelon, a late-seventh-century B.C.E. ostracon records measures of “red wine” and shekhar.20 Aramaic and Egyptian records keep track of quantities of wine and beer.21 So the parallel usage of “wine” and shekhar [=“beer”] in the Hebrew Bible fits well in this literary context.
Nimatallah/Art Resource, NY
BAKING BREAD OR BREWING BEER? Because beer making closely resembles and involves bread making, and even uses many of the same tools, it is often difficult to distinguish the two in the archaeological record. Both took place in the domestic sphere and were closely associated with women. These women were not only in charge of production but often ran taverns where the beer was served. This painted wood model from Egypt (2565–2420 B.C.E.) depicts a woman filtering barley bread to make beer.
One key to understanding shekhar as “beer” is its etymology. The Hebrew word shekhar is clearly derived from Akkadian šikaru (Sumerian KAŠ), which means “barley beer.”22 The term šikaru references beer at all of the major Akkadian archival centers, including Alalakh, Amarna, Ebla, Emar, Karana, Mari, Nineveh, Nippur, Nuzi and Ras Shamra.23
The importance of beer in the ancient Near East can be seen by the fact that, in time, the word for beer came to designate the state of drunkenness. The word for beer became synonymous with inebriation in Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Arabic. Similarly in the Egyptian language, “beer” (ḥnqt) was used for general drunkenness. And in the Bible, shekhar is often a verb that means “to get drunk” (e.g., Genesis 9:21; Isaiah 29:9), a parallel linguistic usage that furthers the case for shekhar as “beer.” (This parallel usage has also survived in modern Hebrew: A drunk is a shekhor (שכור), and shekhar (שכר) means beer, although beer is also commonly called simply beera.)
Some have argued that shekhar is actually a fermented wine made from dates rather than barley beer.a24 This argument stems primarily from the belief that certain sandy regions in Israel, including Ashkelon and Jericho, were better suited for date production than for barley. Yet barley remains have been found at both sites, and one need not travel far from such sites to find soil well suited to barley production.
Others have argued for a grape-based shekhar.25 The primary reason for the idea that shekhar is grape-based stems from the law of the Nazarite:
“He shall separate from wine and shekhar, he shall not drink wine vinegar and shekhar vinegar; and he shall not drink all grape juice and he shall not eat grapes, fresh nor dried. All the days of his separation; from all that is made from the grapevine of wine he shall not eat, from seeds to skins.”
“She will not eat from all that comes from the vine of wine and she shall not drink wine and shekhar.”
Because the authors of Numbers and Judges elaborate on grapes and their products, some have contended that shekhar must be grape-based. Yet nowhere does the text state that shekhar is produced from grapes. The issue here is that the Nazirite and a woman pregnant with a child destined to be a Nazirite (such as Samson and his mother) must not come in contact with alcoholic beverages. The Biblical texts elaborate on grapes because a single grape contains the ingredients necessary to ferment and produce alcohol: sugars, liquid and even yeast. Barley, however, cannot ferment on its own and therefore no elaboration is necessary in the Biblical text as to shekhar.26
Unlike other commercial products, the patron deity of beer was female. Among her other names, the Egyptian goddess Hathor was known as the “Lady of Drunkenness” (depicted above on a statue from Megiddo).
Ancient alcoholic beverages don’t always fit into neat, distinct categories. Chemical evidence of ancient alcoholic drinks show that they were often mixed concoctions.27 It would be rare to find products composed solely of barley, wheat, dates or grapes.28Dates (where and when available) were perhaps the most frequent additive to beer.29 But beers were often sweetened also with grapes, sycamore, figs, honey (fruit and bee) and spices.30 As a general rule, ancient alcoholic drinks are identified by the type of primary sugars used in the fermentation—fruits for wine, cereals for beer.
Photo by M. Homan/Courtesy of the Zeitah Excavations/R.E. Tappy, Director
Despite the difficulty of finding archaeological evidence for beer—due to its similarity to bread making and its relatively short shelf life—some discoveries clearly point to the presence of beer making in ancient Israel. Special ceramic jars with donut-shaped stoppers (such as those shown here from Tel Zayit) have been excavated at numerous sites in the Levant.
There is no doubt that ancient Israel loved wine and prized it highly. Wine is more difficult to produce than beer because, unlike growing cereals, which ripen in a few months, viniculture requires permanent fields and social complexity.31 Over the past 100 years, however, many scholars have inferred that beer drinking is uncivilized—even loutish and uncouth.32 Some scholars have gone so far as to translate classic ancient Akkadian texts that clearly reference beer (šikaru) with the terms “wine” or “strong drink,” apparently to avoid degrading the esteemed imbibers. This has led many Bible scholars actively to distance Biblical heroes from a beer-drinking world, much like some Christians prefer to believe that Jesus drank unfermented grape juice despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.b William Foxwell Albright called the Philistines “carousers” because of their alcohol-orientated ceramic assemblage.33 This bad reputation for beer is unfounded in antiquity, and there is even good news lately for modern beer drinkers. The recent revolution of microbreweries, many of which produce brews that rival wine in complexity, means that beer drinkers need no longer feel inferior to wine connoisseurs.
Photo by Ilan Sztulman/Used with permission of Jane Cahill
To manufacture beer, malted barley cakes were put in jars with water and the donut stoppers were then attached to the mouth of the jar with clay. The small holes in the center were covered with cloth to keep out impurities while allowing gas to escape during the fermentation process. An example of this is shown in situ above. The carbonized remains of crushed wheat were found in this tenth-century B.C.E. jar from Tell el-Hammah.
Archaeological evidence of beer making is often hard to come by because most of the tools used in beer production—such as mortars, querns and winnowing baskets—are often linked to bread making, and the possible connection to beer is sometimes overlooked.34 Indeed the production of bread and beer were intimately linked. The artistic record from ancient Egypt clearly depicts women producing beer at the same time as they made bread. In the ancient world, beer was typically produced by women, most often in domestic contexts.35 Several ancient texts illustrate the connection between women and beer. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, it was the female prostitute Shamhat who first gives Enkidu beer. Then the tavern keeper Siduri provides Gilgamesh with beer and some advice. Women ran taverns in the ancient world, and these places were associated with music, celebration and, at times, prostitution. The Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar, or Inanna in Sumerian, had close associations with beer. In one poem the goddess’s genitals were described as being as “sweet” as “beer.”36 Several other female deities were connected with beer production, including the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who was sometimes known as the “Lady of Drunkenness.”37 In Mesopotamia, where the vast majority of deities associated with trades were male, Ninkasi, the goddess of beer, was female.
SHARING A MALT. The impression on this Babylonian cylinder seal from Ur (c. 2600 B.C.E.) pictures a beer-drinking scene reminiscent of a 1950s soda fountain. The two men use long straws to enjoy beer from the same vessel. Egyptian hieroglyphs also depict people drinking with straws. The ends of the straws were inserted in metal strainer tips inside the beer jar. This would filter out the grains, fruits and other additives in the beer.
Iron Age sites in Israel have recently produced numerous remains, such as beer jugs and bottles, straw-tip strainers and donut-shaped fermentation stoppers, all of which provide evidence of Israelite beer drinking. Fermentation stoppers were used during the production process to seal the opening of the beer-making vessel from impurities, while allowing the resulting gas to escape through the small, cloth-stuffed hole.
The ceramic vessel commonly known as a beer jug, or, more properly, a side-spouted sieve jug, was designed for personal use. Whereas jugs meant for pouring had the spout at 180 degrees from the handle, these “beer jugs” placed the handle 90 degrees to the right of the spout. Thus the consumer would place the spout in his or her mouth while holding the jug with the right hand and then imbibe.38 The ceramic form is very widespread and was used to consume all sorts of alcoholic beverages. Similar vessels found in the Gordion tombs contained residues of a mixture of beer, wine and mead.39 The beer was sometimes also drunk from a communal vessel by several drinkers with straws. We have depictions from Egyptian tombs and Mesopotamian seals demonstrating this technique.40 Like today, drinking beer was often a social activity.
Another common method for imbibing was the so-called “beer jug,” or side-spouted sieve jug (shown here). Instead of a handle opposite the spout for easy pouring, the handles on these jugs are at 90 degrees from the perforated spout, so the consumer could conveniently drink the strained beer straight from the jug.
The final piece of evidence demonstrating that ancient Israelites drank beer invokes chemical analysis. Traces of beer are more difficult to detect chemically than wine, however.41 Because beer was made for immediate consumption, it stayed in jars for a significantly shorter time than wine, which was aged in ceramic vessels to improve the taste. Civilizations typically traded dried cereals and jars of wine rather than jars of beer.
With all that we now know about beer and its important role in the life of the ancient Israelites, I’d like to offer a new interpretation of a famous passage in Ecclesiastes that advises the reader to:
Throw your bread upon the face of the water, because in many days you will acquire it. Give a serving to seven and also eight, because you do not know what evil will be upon the land.
I believe this is a reference to the cakes of bread used in ancient beer production, as noted earlier.42 Cast your bread upon the water and it will return as beer. Much like the phrase carpe diem, the author advises making beer and drinking it with friends, because you don’t know what evil might be coming.
a. See Lawrence E. Stager, “The Fury of Babylon: Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction,” BAR 22:01.
b. See Michael M. Homan and Mark Gstohl, “Jesus the Teetotaler? How Dr. Welch Put the Lord on the Wagon,” Bible Review 18:02.
1. Solomon H. Katz and Mary M. Voigt, “Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet,” Expedition 28:2 (1986), pp. 23–24.
7. H.B. Huffmon writes, “One Mari text detailing the cult of Ishtar mentions that a muhhû ‘is not [...] to become ecstatic’ and hints at a connection of the muhhû with water-downed beer” in “Prophecy,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, p. 479.
9. Michael M. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” in Richard Elliott Friedman and William H.C. Propp, eds., Le David Maskil: A Birthday Tribute for David Noel Freedman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), pp. 25–38.
10. See Philip Mayerson, “Grain Prices in Late Antiquity and the Nature of the Evidence,” in Ziony Zevit, Seymour Gitin and Michael Sokoloff, eds., Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995), pp. 443–449.
11. “Ale” is actually more accurate, as “beer” typically refers to a beverage made from malted grains flavored with hops and carbonated. Like ale, ancient beer had no carbonation, though ancient beer was not flavored with hops as beer and ale are. Due to the malt, ancient beer was sweet and flavored with a variety of fruits and spices.
12. Richard E. Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 523.
13. Magen Broshi, “Wine in Ancient Palestine,” Israel Museum Journal 3 (1984), p. 35.
14. Robert G. Boling, Judges, Anchor Bible 6A (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 219–220.
15. Johann Döller, “Der Wein in Bibel und Talmud,” Biblica 4 (1923), p. 299.
16. Werner Dommershausen, “Nyy” Theologisches Worterbuch zum Alten Testament 3, pp. 614–620.
17. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” p. 26.
18. Enuma Elish III.134–136. Note also the frequent depictions of gods with both grapes and cereals, see Charles Seltman, Wine in the Ancient World (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), pp. 27–31, 156.
19. J.V. Kinnier Wilson, The Nimrud Wine Lists (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1972), p. 81.
20. Note that Lawrence E. Stager believes here that shekar refers to date-wine. See below.
21. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” p. 30.
22. Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Š/2, pp. 420–428; Wolfram von Soden, Akkadisches Handworterbuch, pp. 1232–1233.
23. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” p. 29.
24. See, for example, Magen Broshi, “Date Beer and Date Wine in Antiquity,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 139 (2007), pp. 55–59. See also Lawrence E. Stager, “The Impact of the Sea Peoples in Canaan [1185–1050 B.C.E.], in Thomas E. Levy, ed.,Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (New York: Facts on File, 1995), p. 345. See Carey Walsh, The Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), For further information, see Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” pp. 28–30.
25. Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1–20, Anchor Bible 4A (New York: Doubleday, 1963), pp. 219–220; Robert P. Teachout, “The Use of Wine in the Old Testament” (Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979), pp. 135, 225, 245–247; Menahem Haran, “Myksn (Libations),” Encyclopaedia Biblica (1968), vol. 5, pp. 883–886; Berton Roueché, “Alcohol, I—The Christian Diversion,” New Yorker (January 9, 1960), p. 42.
26. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” pp. 33–35.
27. Patrick E. McGovern et al., “A Funerary Feast Fit for King Midas,” Nature 402 (1999) pp. 863–864; John Fleischman, “Midas’ Feast,” Discover vol. 21, no. 11, pp. 70–75; Stephanie Pain, “Grog of the Greeks,” New Scientist, vol. 164, no. 2214, pp. 54–57.
28. Mary Ann Murray, “Viticulture and Wine Production,” in Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw, eds., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), p. 592.
29. See Marten Stol, “Beer in Neo-Babylonian Times,” in Friedman and Propp, Le David Maskil, pp. 155–183. See also Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” p. 31, especially note 31.
30. Homan, “Beer, Barley, and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” p. 32.
31. Lawrence Stager, “The Firstfruits of Civilization,” in Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages (1985), p. 177.
32. See Homan, “Beer and Its Drinkers,” pp. 84–86.
33. William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology of Palestine (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1949), p. 115.
34. Jennie R. Ebeling and Michael M. Homan, “Brewing Beer as Women’s Technology in Ancient Israel,” in Beth Alpert Nakhai, ed., The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp. 45–62.
35. Ebeling and Homan, “Brewing Beer as Women’s Technology in Ancient Israel.”
36. B. Alster, “Sumerian Love Songs” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 79 (1985), pp. 127–159.
37. Ebeling and Homan, “Brewing Beer as Women’s Technology in Ancient Israel.”
38. One Greek poet noted that Phrygians drinking beer through such a tube resembled the act of fellatio (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 10.447).
39. Patrick E. McGovern, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 279–298.
40. Ebeling and Homan, “Brewing Beer as Women’s Technology in Ancient Israel.”
42. Michael M. Homan, “Beer Production by Throwing Bread into Water: A New Interpretation of QOH. XI 1–2, ” Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 2 (2002), pp. 275–278.
Reference for this article:
Homan, Michael M.. “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2010. http://www.bib-arch.org/article.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=36&Issue=5&ArticleID=4&UserID=0(accessed 9/15/2010)